What's Ahead for Learning Management Systems in Higher Education?

Article excerpt

When a university asks its current learning management system (LMS) vendor what's the difference between their 2002 and 2003 LMS products, the vendor calmly states, "about $50,000." This quip underscores the recent transition of learning management systems from departmental postscript to institutional necessity. Understanding how vendors have transformed their products into critical infrastructure helps forecast where LMSs may evolve. The systems must maintain the features that led to widespread adoption, but expand to provide new rationales for continued reliance.

It is useful to briefly discuss the evolution of LMSs and to understand the pertinent acronyms that illustrate the pattern of LMS development.

A course or content management system (CMS/LCMS) is a system for managing course content. Typified by Blackboard 5 or WebCT Campus, a CMS is the content repository which stores, manages, and maintains learning content. The CMS separates the content from its delivery so that content can be authored once and reused in many courses. In higher education, the CMS was born from local solutions to Web-enhanced course delivery.

A learning management system (LMS) is a system for managing learner progress through courses. Exemplified by Blackboard 6 or WebCT Vista, an LMS interacts with the student to manage access to learning content and support services. The LMS manages the learning process and is learner-focused, rather than content-focused. In higher education, the LMS was born from local student information systems.

Today's learning management systems started as local solutions and evolved into proprietary vendor products. According to Acadient (2004), the current CMS/LMS market is dominated by three companies: Blackboard (38%), WebCT (32%), eCollege (11%). Other companies account for the remaining 19% of the market. The "other" category includes home-grown systems (such as the University of Phoenix's rEsource and the University of Maryland University College's WebTYCHO), pioneers (such as VCampus and FirstClass), newcomers (such as IntraLearn and Angel), and systems with a strong corporate training presence (such as Saba and Decent). Three years ago, the market was extremely fragmented, but as further consolidation occurs, only a handful of products will survive.


The products that survive will continue to improve learning for both students and faculty. From a student perspective, the CMS concentrates on individual needs: greatly expanded syllabi detail learning expectations; online testing and gradebooks provide immediate feedback. The student/consumer has come to expect the same universal access, efficient responsiveness, and accommodation he or she is receiving elsewhere in an economy shifting from manufacturing to information services.

From a faculty perspective, the LMS solves administrative headaches: over the past 10 years, less than 5% of higher education technology budgets were devoted to the administrative aspects of instruction or to instruction itself (Byrne, n.d.). The LMS offers automatic registration, tracking, and a comprehensive record of communication.

Instructional management systems in the future will continue to solve these service problems for students and faculty but must also evolve or be replaced by custom solutions. …